With the opening of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, DC has officially launched its own shared universe for all of its big hitting superheroes to be brought together in the upcoming Justice League: Part 1 movie, set for 2017. However, the movie has gained mixed reception, not between critics, but between critics and fans; and thus it has called into question the approach the movies are taking in setting up this superhero world. This is because, the fans may love it for one reason and the critics may hate it for another, but there is always an element of truth in what critics say; and the fan’s enjoyment may only be limited if what they like about the movie/genre until it just gets repetitive. This means that DC should look to adapt their approach in the forthcoming movies in order to calm the critics and give the audience something different to engage and connect with in this new world of incredible characters.
For this I would point to the successful animated projects at Warner Bros. for inspiration and ideas of how to make a successful franchise. If there is one area that DC can point to in their rivalry with Marvel, where they have consistently and historically outperformed their comic book counterparts, it is in animated productions; both movie and television series. That is not to say that Marvel projects are without quality, they’re very entertaining, follow good storylines and include many of the characters we know and love whilst introducing us to some new faces. However, DC have always been strong in the animated department, from ‘Batman: the Animated Series’, through the ‘Superman’ equivalent, then introducing the ‘Justice League’ and ‘Justice League: Unlimited’ series and a very recent success in ‘Young Justice’ which is fishing for a new season given its strong fanbase and critical feedback. Their success is not found purely in the TV format either, they have many successful Justice League animated movies such as ‘Justice League: War’ which follows the New 52 founding of the Justice League and is anticipated to be the general plot for the real-time Justice League movie itself. Plus they have great individual origin movies such as Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and, a personal fave that I would like to see made into its real-time movie, ‘Superman/Shazam: the Return of Black Adam’. So amongst these successful projects there is a key to boosting the real-time Justice League movie franchise so as to satisfy everybody’s wants and needs and I think I have the answer.
Now needless to say that animated movies/TV series are limited in their capacity to entertain, for example they are targeted at a much younger audience, however, these limitations are also the basis for finding the real qualities for making a successful superhero franchise; besides the genre is set upon the ideals and aspirations of a younger mind. An animated movie, let alone one of the superhero genre, is limited also by its graphics, the duration of the movie and also its budget so how can this prove to be an inspiration to the real-time movie producers? Well, with all these limitations, strength has to be derived from elsewhere and by elsewhere I mean the screenplay and the plot itself.
When I say the that the screenplay can massively aid the development of the superhero genre I also include the necessary direction to make the screenplay effective and meaningful. By paying close attention to the dialogue, not just between heroes, but between heroes and ordinary folk, it emphasises the human quality in these characters who are superhuman by nature and therefore makes them more relatable and identifiable. We can understand their motivations and measure the strength of their own ideals, we can understand the dynamics of their relationships with other heroes or other cast and we can understand how their motivations/ideals align or diverge, thus giving substance to the plot. Now, a picture may speak a thousand words, but as the audience member we need more detailed interaction between characters. Although the genre is necessarily steeped in history of all out brawling and bitter fighting, we need something more for a sustained franchise to succeed. These are not just characters in a plot, these a people we have to follow and understand, we do not just want to feel like passengers we have to feel like they are talking to us and appealing to our ideals and beliefs so we can get behind them ourselves. In animated projects, the action is relatively subdued and limited because it is not as grand as in real-time epics, so the advancement of the plot is necessarily guided by effective dialogue between the characters themselves. I would use ‘Justice League: War’ as an example of this, although this is a very action orientated comic/animated movie, you are never lost in the action because of the constant, narrative dialogue between the characters. You understand the stakes, you empathise with the limitations of characters and you are aware of each characters appreciation for one another which you then consequently share. DC are going to need this in spades when it comes to their ‘Justice League’ movie because with all those major characters flying about, audiences would be forgiven if they got lost in an action-orientated approach to the movie. This is especially so since Marvel and Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Assemble notably toned down the fighting and action sequences to instead focus on the interactions between the characters themselves and made this a deliberate plot point, and half of the battle, which turned out to be a masterstroke in making the movie and bringing together the franchise.
I also want to bring up the need of a strong plot for all the upcoming DC movies. Since animated projects are limited in their duration the plot must be strong and be advanced at a consistent and fluent pace in order to retain interest. This has been a major criticism of the ‘Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice’ movie, in that nobody really knew what was happening, or why they were fighting; it was also described as one huge trailer for the Justice League movie itself. This just will not do. The movie must have more of a focus than just introducing a big bad and dealing with it. I feel Man of Steel actually did this quite nicely, as it presented Clark Kent with a question as to ‘who am I?’ and ‘how can I tell people and be a part of this world?’, then to have him forced to reveal himself. However, we are talking about several major characters all in one movie and, as mentioned, Marvel and Joss Whedon successfully managed to balance the action side with the progression of a plot and character interaction so what can Warner/DC look to? I would point to their animated movie ‘Justice League: Doom’, which was an animated movie whose action was far more restricted than most others and this was in pursuit of a substantive plot. This gave us the impression that there was far more to fight for than just a face-up against an opponent, but they were being challenged in a more strategic and cohesive way. This adds layers to the story and does not leave audiences just waiting for the face-off between the good and the bad…which does inevitably happen in that movie, but is brought about in a far more interesting way and if there was a real-time development of those plot ideas then they coud be progressed into something truly captivating.
Overall, it is of course obvious that animated movies and real-time equivalents are so very different, but I believe that the guys in the real-time business could seriously learn from their animated brethren. With benefits to be derived from a more plot based and screenplay orientated approach, the characters do not need to be shown flying into space for us to know they have depth and the writers should iterate that the pen is mightier than the sword.